These next few posts will explore the urban spaces where Philadelphians danced—where they performed for audiences, taught classes for adults and children and where they hosted their elaborate balls during their winter social seasons. In this post, I’ll talk about two halls, two hotels and two theatres.  Clicking on any image will open it larger in a new window.

1790 Phila dance spots

The map above, from 1795, shows the dark shaded triangle that was the built up part of Philadelphia about 1795. Its broad base stretches along the Delaware Riverfront on the right and its apex barely reaches to 10th Street just north of High (Market) Street, pointing toward the empty Public Square to the west where the tower of City Hall would rise a hundred years later. Click on the map to see a larger version.

The cluster of green dots just below the market stalls of High Street show the concentration of dance spaces in Old City. They are at the heart of a densely populated commercial area, full of inns, banks and shops. The long sets of country dances popular in the eighteenth century required long unobstructed dance floors. In the 1790s, this meant using academic classrooms after school hours, Masonic lodges, taverns, hotels and the large spaces found in public  theatres. Only a very few private homes, like that of Samuel and Elizabeth Powel on Third Street south of  Walnut, had any kind of space large enough to be called a ballroom.

From 1790 to 1800, Philadelphia was the political and social capital of America. Dance teachers and the schools they established flourished, catering to the elite clientele that competed for places in the capital city’s brilliant social scene.

Rococco 1

church alley


On Church Alley, just west of Christ Church, “1,” above, was Stephen Sicard’s 30 by 40 foot “noted dancing-room.” Sicard had come to Philadelphia from France about 1783, well before the French Revolution. He advertised himself as “a pupil of the celebrated Mr. Vestries, and assistant master of Mr. Gardell, the first dancing master of the Opera at Paris.” His advertisements made it clear that “he would address his pupils in English.” In 1791, he composed a ballet entitled Congress Returns for his young pupils. Sicard was also a musician and composer. He wrote “The President of the United States’ March” to honor George Washington as well as several sets of cotillions for dancing. Sicard taught dance to hundreds of students in Philadelphia for over thirty years, until his retirement in 1815.

The large room Sicard taught in was also used for lectures, a fencing school, and a concert series. It was owned by Peter le Barbier Duplessis, another Frenchman who came to Philadelphia after the War of Independence. Duplessis was a notary public as well as a certified translator. He was also a Freemason and rented or loaned his room for masonic lodge meetings. Although a French Catholic, Duplessis became involved with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, on Pine Street, where he is buried.

1796 Harmony Hall


The little cobblestone and brick brick path that now runs from 4th to 3rd Street just behind the Todd House and the Bishop White House on Walnut Street was once an alley called Harmony Court, above. All the buildings on Harmony Court were razed in the 1950s for the landscaping of what is now Independence Park.

The building there, marked in red on the map above, was called Harmony Hall. The dancing hall was on the second floor above a livery stable. Like its counterpart in Church Alley, it hosted meetings, lectures and performances as well as dance classes. At the end of the eighteenth century, several dance masters taught there, including William McDougal, Balthazar Quesnet, Mr. Francis and his good friend, the first American born professional dancer, John Durang.


IsraelHarmony Hall and the livery stable were owned by an interesting Philadelphian named Israel Israel, right. Despite his name, he was only half Jewish and married a Quaker wife, Hanna Erwin. He ran the Cross Keys Tavern at Third and Chestnut Streets, rented out stables, owned several buildings and served as the High Sheriff of Philadelphia County. He was also Grand Master of the Grand Lodge for many years, so as with the long room on Church Alley, Harmony Hall was also used for lodge meetings. The Israels now rest in the beautiful Laurel Hill Cemetery.


Old City TavernIn the early 1790s, the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly held their dancing season at Old City Tavern, seen next to the Bank of Pennsylvania, left on 2nd Street near Walnut Street for many years. When Oellers’ Hotel opened on Chestnut near 6th they moved there. I’ve talked a bit about Oellers’ Hotel in another blog post here.  Among the Philadelphia dancers who taught at Oellers’ were Gaspard Cenas, Mr. Lancon and James Robardet, who instructed George and Martha Washington’s two grandchildren, Nelly and George Washington Custis in the art of dancing. In 1792, George wrote a letter of recommendation for Robardet:

Dear Sister & Dear Madam,

Mr James Robardet, who has taught my two Grand children dancing, proposes going into your part of the Country to establish a School, if he should meet with sufficient encouragement, and has requested that I would give him a line of recommendation to some of my friends. Mr Robardet’s attention to my grand children, and the progress which they have made under his instruction, induce me to recommend him on these accounts from my own knowledge: He has likewise kept a dancing School in this City the winter past—in which I am informed he has given much satisfaction, and his conduct has been marked with decency & propriety, so far as I have heard.



Many of the dance teachers who came to Philadelphia were professional performers who taught classes to supplement their incomes. The two most important theatres in Philadelphia at the end of the 18th century were the Southwark, or “Old” Theatre, on the south side of Cedar or South Street near 4th, and the Chestnut Street, or “New” Theatre on the north side of Chestnut near 6th Street. I’ve already given a detailed account of the Southwark Theatre here, and described how the Chestnut Theatre eclipsed it in 1794. A view of the interior of the original Chestnut Theatre, above, shows the rows of plain benches in the pit and the elegant tiers of  boxes on either side.

* * *

The Chestnut Theatre and Oellers’, both just west of 6th Street mark the gradual shift of the city’s commercial center west that would begin in the second half of the 18th century  and culminate in the construction of a new City Hall at Market and Broad Streets at the end of the 19th century.

Rococco 1

Chestnut St theatre

In this series we’re examining Philadelphia dance masters who not only taught throughout the city, but who also left a legacy of dance manuals which they published  for their students and the general public.


Charles Durang HSPThe remarkable Charles Durang, left, was born in Philadelphia in 1793, the oldest son of America’s first native-born professional dancer, John Durang. Charles’ brother, Ferdinand Durang, was the first person to publically sing the “Star Spangled Banner” in Baltimore in 1814.

Charles began his stage career at age 10 at the Chestnut Street Theatre, dancing in the early English melodrama “A Tale of Mystery.” By the time he died at age 76 in 1870, Charles had been a dancer, pantomimist, actor, author, prompter, stage manager and ballet master in almost every respectable theatre in the United States. He wrote the important “History of the Philadelphia Stage from 1752 to 1854,” which was published serially in the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch. By the age of 16, he was assisting his father in teaching juvenile pupils at his social dance academy at Harmony Hall, on south Fourth Street. In the 1840s, after retiring from the stage, Charles opened his own school on north Ninth Street. In the 1850s, his daughter Caroline (he’d father 10 children) partnered with him at “Mr. and Miss Durang’s Dancing Academy, cor. of Chestnut and Twelfth,” below. Durang continued his long dance teaching career well into his 70s. He’s buried at the German Catholic Holy Trinity Church at Sixth and Spruce Streets.

Durang Dcg Academy 1857


1848 Durang coverIn 1847, Charles Durang published a tiny, 16 page pocket sized booklet called Leaflets of the Ballroom. Later that year, he published a longer dance manual called Durang’s Terpsichore, or, Ball Room Guide. (See newspaper ad from October, 1847 below.) He’d go on to publish sections and excerpts from Terpsichore over the next ten years, managing to squeeze three additional books out of that original publication.

Like many American dance manuals from the 19th century, Durang took much of his material from extant European dance manuals and etiquette books. His guide begins with a brief history of dancing, then moves on to technical exercises to improve strength and co-ordination. The bulk of the book describes choreographies and steps for the contemporary fashionable dances, the innumerable variations and combinations of  quadrilles and cotillions that were the mainstay of formal balls. Durang stresses that, in contrast to the balletic steps we saw in Guillou’s Elements and Principles of the Art of Dancing last time, cotillions “are now only walked or shuffled through, (with a few rare exceptions,) regardless of figures, step or time.”

1848 Durang curtesyHe then gives special attention to the new dances that had invaded London and Paris ballrooms from Eastern Europe in the 1840s: the polka, the valse hongroise, the redowa, the polonaise and the mazurka, describing how the steps could be used in the new “mazurka quadrilles.” After touching on old-fashioned line dances like the Virginia Reel, Durang goes on to add the obligatory chapters on ballroom etiquette and costume; “Dancing and etiquette are inseparable. They go hand in hand to impart pleasure and secure a just moral result.”  In keeping with the early romantic fascination with the foreign and exotic, he finishes his small book with descriptions of various national dances that had begun to appear on opera stages: the African Chica, the Spanish Bolero and Seguidillas and the Italian Tarantella.

1847 11 30 Durang Published

Even though they were derivative of European dance manuals, books like Durang’s Terpsichore help give us a picture of social life, dancing and manners in Philadelphia in the 19th century. In addition, in the case of Durang’s long career, the gradual movement of the locations of his dancing schools, from Fourth Street to Ninth and finally to Twelfth Street, document the residential and commercial growth of the city as it expanded westward from the original settlements along the Delaware River.

19th C doodad 3


• Charles Durang, Leaflets of the Ballroom (Philadelphia: Turner & Fisher, 1847)

• Charles Durang, Durang’s Terpsichore, or, Ball Room Guide: Being a Compendium of the Theory, Practice, and Etiquette of Dancing (Philadelphia: Turner & Fisher, 1847)

• Charles Durang, The Ball-Room Bijou, and Art of Dancing: Containing the Figures of the Polkas, Mazurkas, and other Popular New Dances, with Rules for Polite Behavior (Philadelphia: Turner & Fisher, 1850)

• Charles Durang, The Dancer’s Own Book, and Ball-Room Companion (New York: Turner & Fisher, 1854)

• Charles Durang, The Fashionable Dancer’s Casket, or, the Ball-Room Instructor: A New and Splendid Work on Dancing, Etiquette, Deportment, and the Toilet (Philadelphia: Fisher & Bro., 1856)

• Susan de Guardiola has disentangled the mysteries of Durang’s several re-publications of parts of Terpsichore on her dance history blog, “Capering & Kickery,” here:

• Edwina Hare, The Durang Family (Harleysville, PA: Alcom printing group, 2000)

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